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Chapter 10


The knowledge was too disturbing, really. There was "something wrong"
with a vengeance, and the moral certitude of it was at first simply
frightful to contemplate. Sterne had been looking aft in a mood so idle,
that for once he was thinking no harm of anyone. His captain on the
bridge presented himself naturally to his sight. How insignificant, how
casual was the thought that had started the train of discovery--like
an accidental spark that suffices to ignite the charge of a tremendous
mine!

Caught under by the breeze, the awnings of the foredeck bellied upwards
and collapsed slowly, and above their heavy flapping the gray stuff of
Captain Whalley's roomy coat fluttered incessantly around his arms and
trunk. He faced the wind in full light, with his great silvery beard
blown forcibly against his chest; the eyebrows overhung heavily the
shadows whence his glance appeared to be staring ahead piercingly.
Sterne could just detect the twin gleam of the whites shifting under the
shaggy arches of the brow. At short range these eyes, for all the man's
affable manner, seemed to look you through and through. Sterne never
could defend himself from that feeling when he had occasion to speak
with his captain. He did not like it. What a big heavy man he appeared
up there, with that little shrimp of a Serang in close attendance--as
was usual in this extraordinary steamer! Confounded absurd custom that.
He resented it. Surely the old fellow could have looked after his ship
without that loafing native at his elbow. Sterne wriggled his shoulders
with disgust. What was it? Indolence or what?

That old skipper must have been growing lazy for years. They all grew
lazy out East here (Sterne was very conscious of his own unimpaired
activity); they got slack all over. But he towered very erect on the
bridge; and quite low by his side, as you see a small child looking over
the edge of a table, the battered soft hat and the brown face of the
Serang peeped over the white canvas screen of the rail.

No doubt the Malay was standing back, nearer to the wheel; but the
great disparity of size in close association amused Sterne like the
observation of a bizarre fact in nature. They were as queer fish out of
the sea as any in it.

He saw Captain Whalley turn his head quickly to speak to his Serang;
the wind whipped the whole white mass of the beard sideways. He would
be directing the chap to look at the compass for him, or what not. Of
course. Too much trouble to step over and see for himself. Sterne's
scorn for that bodily indolence which overtakes white men in the East
increased on reflection. Some of them would be utterly lost if they
hadn't all these natives at their beck and call; they grew perfectly
shameless about it too. He was not of that sort, thank God! It wasn't
in him to make himself dependent for his work on any shriveled-up little
Malay like that. As if one could ever trust a silly native for anything
in the world! But that fine old man thought differently, it seems. There
they were together, never far apart; a pair of them, recalling to the
mind an old whale attended by a little pilot-fish.

The fancifulness of the comparison made him smile. A whale with an
inseparable pilot-fish! That's what the old man looked like; for it
could not be said he looked like a shark, though Mr. Massy had called
him that very name. But Mr. Massy did not mind what he said in his
savage fits. Sterne smiled to himself--and gradually the ideas evoked
by the sound, by the imagined shape of the word pilot-fish; the ideas
of aid, of guidance needed and received, came uppermost in his mind:
the word pilot awakened the idea of trust, of dependence, the idea of
welcome, clear-eyed help brought to the seaman groping for the land
in the dark: groping blindly in fogs: feeling their way in the thick
weather of the gales that, filling the air with a salt mist blown up
from the sea, contract the range of sight on all sides to a shrunken
horizon that seems within reach of the hand.

A pilot sees better than a stranger, because his local knowledge, like
a sharper vision, completes the shapes of things hurriedly glimpsed;
penetrates the veils of mist spread over the land by the storms of the
sea; defines with certitude the outlines of a coast lying under the pall
of fog, the forms of landmarks half buried in a starless night as in a
shallow grave. He recognizes because he already knows. It is not to
his far-reaching eye but to his more extensive knowledge that the pilot
looks for certitude; for this certitude of the ship's position on
which may depend a man's good fame and the peace of his conscience, the
justification of the trust deposited in his hands, with his own life
too, which is seldom wholly his to throw away, and the humble lives of
others rooted in distant affections, perhaps, and made as weighty as
the lives of kings by the burden of the awaiting mystery. The pilot's
knowledge brings relief and certitude to the commander of a ship; the
Serang, however, in his fanciful suggestion of a pilot-fish attending a
whale, could not in any way be credited with a superior knowledge. Why
should he have it? These two men had come on that run together--the
white and the brown--on the same day: and of course a white man would
learn more in a week than the best native would in a month. He was
made to stick to the skipper as though he were of some use--as the
pilot-fish, they say, is to the whale. But how--it was very marked--how?
A pilot-fish--a pilot--a . . . But if not superior knowledge then . . .

Sterne's discovery was made. It was repugnant to his imagination,
shocking to his ideas of honesty, shocking to his conception of mankind.
This enormity affected one's outlook on what was possible in this world:
it was as if for instance the sun had turned blue, throwing a new and
sinister light on men and nature. Really in the first moment he had felt
sickish, as though he had got a blow below the belt: for a second the
very color of the sea seemed changed--appeared queer to his wandering
eye; and he had a passing, unsteady sensation in all his limbs as though
the earth had started turning the other way.

A very natural incredulity succeeding this sense of upheaval brought a
measure of relief. He had gasped; it was over. But afterwards during all
that day sudden paroxysms of wonder would come over him in the midst
of his occupations. He would stop and shake his head. The revolt of
his incredulity had passed away almost as quick as the first emotion
of discovery, and for the next twenty-four hours he had no sleep. That
would never do. At meal-times (he took the foot of the table set up
for the white men on the bridge) he could not help losing himself in
a fascinated contemplation of Captain Whalley opposite. He watched the
deliberate upward movements of the arm; the old man put his food to his
lips as though he never expected to find any taste in his daily bread,
as though he did not know anything about it. He fed himself like a
somnambulist. "It's an awful sight," thought Sterne; and he watched the
long period of mournful, silent immobility, with a big brown hand
lying loosely closed by the side of the plate, till he noticed the two
engineers to the right and left looking at him in astonishment. He would
close his mouth in a hurry then, and lowering his eyes, wink rapidly at
his plate. It was awful to see the old chap sitting there; it was even
awful to think that with three words he could blow him up sky-high.
All he had to do was to raise his voice and pronounce a single short
sentence, and yet that simple act seemed as impossible to attempt as
moving the sun out of its place in the sky. The old chap could eat in
his terrific mechanical way; but Sterne, from mental excitement, could
not--not that evening, at any rate.

He had had ample time since to get accustomed to the strain of the
meal-hours. He would never have believed it. But then use is everything;
only the very potency of his success prevented anything resembling
elation. He felt like a man who, in his legitimate search for a loaded
gun to help him on his way through the world, chances to come upon a
torpedo--upon a live torpedo with a shattering charge in its head and
a pressure of many atmospheres in its tail. It is the sort of weapon to
make its possessor careworn and nervous. He had no mind to be blown up
himself; and he could not get rid of the notion that the explosion was
bound to damage him too in some way.

This vague apprehension had restrained him at first. He was able now to
eat and sleep with that fearful weapon by his side, with the conviction
of its power always in mind. It had not been arrived at by any
reflective process; but once the idea had entered his head, the
conviction had followed overwhelmingly in a multitude of observed little
facts to which before he had given only a languid attention. The abrupt
and faltering intonations of the deep voice; the taciturnity put on
like an armor; the deliberate, as if guarded, movements; the long
immobilities, as if the man he watched had been afraid to disturb the
very air: every familiar gesture, every word uttered in his hearing,
every sigh overheard, had acquired a special significance, a
confirmatory import.

Every day that passed over the Sofala appeared to Sterne simply crammed
full with proofs--with incontrovertible proofs. At night, when off duty,
he would steal out of his cabin in pyjamas (for more proofs) and stand
a full hour, perhaps, on his bare feet below the bridge, as absolutely
motionless as the awning stanchion in its deck socket near by. On the
stretches of easy navigation it is not usual for a coasting captain to
remain on deck all the time of his watch. The Serang keeps it for him as
a matter of custom; in open water, on a straight course, he is usually
trusted to look after the ship by himself. But this old man seemed
incapable of remaining quietly down below. No doubt he could not sleep.
And no wonder. This was also a proof. Suddenly in the silence of the
ship panting upon the still, dark sea, Sterne would hear a low voice
above him exclaiming nervously--

"Serang!"

"Tuan!"

"You are watching the compass well?"

"Yes, I am watching, Tuan."

"The ship is making her course?"

"She is, Tuan. Very straight."

"It is well; and remember, Serang, that the order is that you are to
mind the helmsmen and keep a lookout with care, the same as if I were
not on deck."

Then, when the Serang had made his answer, the low tones on the bridge
would cease, and everything round Sterne seemed to become more still
and more profoundly silent. Slightly chilled and with his back aching a
little from long immobility, he would steal away to his room on the
port side of the deck. He had long since parted with the last vestige
of incredulity; of the original emotions, set into a tumult by the
discovery, some trace of the first awe alone remained. Not the awe of
the man himself--he could blow him up sky-high with six words--rather it
was an awestruck indignation at the reckless perversity of avarice (what
else could it be?), at the mad and somber resolution that for the
sake of a few dollars more seemed to set at naught the common rule
of conscience and pretended to struggle against the very decree of
Providence.

You could not find another man like this one in the whole round
world--thank God. There was something devilishly dauntless in the
character of such a deception which made you pause.

Other considerations occurring to his prudence had kept him tongue-tied
from day to day. It seemed to him now that it would yet have been easier
to speak out in the first hour of discovery. He almost regretted
not having made a row at once. But then the very monstrosity of the
disclosure . . . Why! He could hardly face it himself, let alone
pointing it out to somebody else. Moreover, with a desperado of that
sort one never knew. The object was not to get him out (that was as well
as done already), but to step into his place. Bizarre as the thought
seemed he might have shown fight. A fellow up to working such a fraud
would have enough cheek for anything; a fellow that, as it were, stood
up against God Almighty Himself. He was a horrid marvel--that's what he
was: he was perfectly capable of brazening out the affair scandalously
till he got him (Sterne) kicked out of the ship and everlastingly
damaged his prospects in this part of the East. Yet if you want to get
on something must be risked. At times Sterne thought he had been unduly
timid of taking action in the past; and what was worse, it had come to
this, that in the present he did not seem to know what action to take.

Massy's savage moroseness was too disconcerting. It was an incalculable
factor of the situation. You could not tell what there was behind that
insulting ferocity. How could one trust such a temper; it did not put
Sterne in bodily fear for himself, but it frightened him exceedingly as
to his prospects.

Though of course inclined to credit himself with exceptional powers of
observation, he had by now lived too long with his discovery. He had
gone on looking at nothing else, till at last one day it occurred to him
that the thing was so obvious that no one could miss seeing it. There
were four white men in all on board the Sofala. Jack, the second
engineer, was too dull to notice anything that took place out of his
engine-room. Remained Massy--the owner--the interested person--nearly
going mad with worry. Sterne had heard and seen more than enough on
board to know what ailed him; but his exasperation seemed to make him
deaf to cautious overtures. If he had only known it, there was the very
thing he wanted. But how could you bargain with a man of that sort? It
was like going into a tiger's den with a piece of raw meat in your hand.
He was as likely as not to rend you for your pains. In fact, he was
always threatening to do that very thing; and the urgency of the case,
combined with the impossibility of handling it with safety, made Sterne
in his watches below toss and mutter open-eyed in his bunk, for hours,
as though he had been burning with fever.

Occurrences like the crossing of the bar just now were extremely
alarming to his prospects. He did not want to be left behind by some
swift catastrophe. Massy being on the bridge, the old man had to brace
himself up and make a show, he supposed. But it was getting very bad
with him, very bad indeed, now. Even Massy had been emboldened to find
fault this time; Sterne, listening at the foot of the ladder, had heard
the other's whimpering and artless denunciations. Luckily the beast was
very stupid and could not see the why of all this. However, small blame
to him; it took a clever man to hit upon the cause. Nevertheless, it was
high time to do something. The old man's game could not be kept up for
many days more.

"I may yet lose my life at this fooling--let alone my chance," Sterne
mumbled angrily to himself, after the stooping back of the chief
engineer had disappeared round the corner of the skylight. Yes, no
doubt--he thought; but to blurt out his knowledge would not advance his
prospects. On the contrary, it would blast them utterly as likely as
not. He dreaded another failure. He had a vague consciousness of not
being much liked by his fellows in this part of the world; inexplicably
enough, for he had done nothing to them. Envy, he supposed. People were
always down on a clever chap who made no bones about his determination
to get on. To do your duty and count on the gratitude of that brute
Massy would be sheer folly. He was a bad lot. Unmanly! A vicious man!
Bad! Bad! A brute! A brute without a spark of anything human about him;
without so much as simple curiosity even, or else surely he would have
responded in some way to all these hints he had been given. . . . Such
insensibility was almost mysterious. Massy's state of exasperation
seemed to Sterne to have made him stupid beyond the ordinary silliness
of shipowners.

Sterne, meditating on the embarrassments of that stupidity, forgot
himself completely. His stony, unwinking stare was fixed on the planks
of the deck.

The slight quiver agitating the whole fabric of the ship was more
perceptible in the silent river, shaded and still like a forest
path. The Sofala, gliding with an even motion, had passed beyond the
coast-belt of mud and mangroves. The shores rose higher, in firm sloping
banks, and the forest of big trees came down to the brink. Where the
earth had been crumbled by the floods it showed a steep brown cut,
denuding a mass of roots intertwined as if wrestling underground; and in
the air, the interlaced boughs, bound and loaded with creepers, carried
on the struggle for life, mingled their foliage in one solid wall
of leaves, with here and there the shape of an enormous dark pillar
soaring, or a ragged opening, as if torn by the flight of a cannonball,
disclosing the impenetrable gloom within, the secular inviolable shade
of the virgin forest. The thump of the engines reverberated regularly
like the strokes of a metronome beating the measure of the vast silence,
the shadow of the western wall had fallen across the river, and the
smoke pouring backwards from the funnel eddied down behind the ship,
spread a thin dusky veil over the somber water, which, checked by the
flood-tide, seemed to lie stagnant in the whole straight length of the
reaches.

Sterne's body, as if rooted on the spot, trembled slightly from top to
toe with the internal vibration of the ship; from under his feet came
sometimes a sudden clang of iron, the noisy burst of a shout below; to
the right the leaves of the tree-tops caught the rays of the low sun,
and seemed to shine with a golden green light of their own shimmering
around the highest boughs which stood out black against a smooth blue
sky that seemed to droop over the bed of the river like the roof of a
tent. The passengers for Batu Beru, kneeling on the planks, were engaged
in rolling their bedding of mats busily; they tied up bundles, they
snapped the locks of wooden chests. A pockmarked peddler of small wares
threw his head back to drain into his throat the last drops out of an
earthenware bottle before putting it away in a roll of blankets. Knots
of traveling traders standing about the deck conversed in low tones;
the followers of a small Rajah from down the coast, broad-faced, simple
young fellows in white drawers and round white cotton caps with their
colored sarongs twisted across their bronze shoulders, squatted on their
hams on the hatch, chewing betel with bright red mouths as if they had
been tasting blood. Their spears, lying piled up together within the
circle of their bare toes, resembled a casual bundle of dry bamboos; a
thin, livid Chinaman, with a bulky package wrapped up in leaves already
thrust under his arm, gazed ahead eagerly; a wandering Kling rubbed his
teeth with a bit of wood, pouring over the side a bright stream of water
out of his lips; the fat Rajah dozed in a shabby deck-chair,--and at the
turn of every bend the two walls of leaves reappeared running parallel
along the banks, with their impenetrable solidity fading at the top to
a vaporous mistiness of countless slender twigs growing free, of young
delicate branches shooting from the topmost limbs of hoary trunks,
of feathery heads of climbers like delicate silver sprays standing up
without a quiver. There was not a sign of a clearing anywhere; not a
trace of human habitation, except when in one place, on the bare end of
a low point under an isolated group of slender tree-ferns, the jagged,
tangled remnants of an old hut on piles appeared with that peculiar
aspect of ruined bamboo walls that look as if smashed with a club.
Farther on, half hidden under the drooping bushes, a canoe containing a
man and a woman, together with a dozen green cocoanuts in a heap, rocked
helplessly after the Sofala had passed, like a navigating contrivance of
venturesome insects, of traveling ants; while two glassy folds of water
streaming away from each bow of the steamer across the whole width of
the river ran with her up stream smoothly, fretting their outer ends
into a brown whispering tumble of froth against the miry foot of each
bank.

"I must," thought Sterne, "bring that brute Massy to his bearings. It's
getting too absurd in the end. Here's the old man up there buried in his
chair--he may just as well be in his grave for all the use he'll ever be
in the world--and the Serang's in charge. Because that's what he is.
In charge. In the place that's mine by rights. I must bring that savage
brute to his bearings. I'll do it at once, too . . ."

When the mate made an abrupt start, a little brown half-naked boy, with
large black eyes, and the string of a written charm round his neck,
became panic-struck at once. He dropped the banana he had been munching,
and ran to the knee of a grave dark Arab in flowing robes, sitting like
a Biblical figure, incongruously, on a yellow tin trunk corded with a
rope of twisted rattan. The father, unmoved, put out his hand to pat the
little shaven poll protectingly.

Joseph Conrad

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